Just as in human medicine, vaccinating our companion animals has become a more controversial topic in the past few years.
What are vaccinations?
Vaccinations take their origin in the discovery that people exposed to cow pox, a non-life threatening infection of cows, lead to immunity against the deadly small pox virus. Even the name vaccination comes from the latin prefix for cow (vacca).
Vaccinations are solutions that safely contain particles of an infectious disease (most often viruses) that, when administered, will cause the body to form an immune response such that should that same individual be exposed to that disease in nature they will be able to fight off infection. There are 3 main types of vaccinations used in veterinary medicine:
Killed virus vaccines, as the name implies, contains dead virus. The dead virus means that the animal will not get sick but often times the immune response is not as strong. Killed virus vaccines have components in them, called adjuvents, that make them more effective at making an immune response.
Modified live vaccines contain living virus that has been modified such that it will cause an appropriate immune response but that it will not cause systemic disease in the patient.
Recombinant vaccines are the newest category of vaccine. Rather than containing whole organisms, these vaccines use up-to-date lab techniques to create a solution that only contains the part of a virus needed to make a strong immune response.
What cat diseases can vaccines prevent?
There are 3 main cat vaccines that are used routinely that protect against 5 infectious disease:
FCVRP: This “core” vaccine protects against two upper respiratory diseases (rhinotracheitis/herpes virus, calicivirus, and feline distemper/panleukopenia).
Rabies virus vaccine
Feline Leukemia virus vaccine
In addition to these 3 vaccines, there are two other vaccines that may be recommended based on exposure concerns and geographical risk:
Feline Immunodeficiency Virus
There are 2 vaccines that are no longer used in cat practice, because they were found to not protect against the target infectious disease and generally not safe:
Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP) vaccine
For more information about these feline infectious disease, click here.
What risks are associated with vaccination?
For the number of vaccines that are given to cats annual, the risk of vaccination is relatively low but not 100% risk free. The most common adverse reactions seen in clinics include:
Anaphylactic reaction: Anaphylactic reaction is an acute, and often severe, reaction to a vaccination. Although very rare, this reaction can be life threatening. It is for this reason that we will have owners wait 5 – 10 minutes post-vaccination so we can monitor our patients in the immediate post-vaccination phase.
Delayed reaction: This is the most common vaccine reaction and reflects that general malaise (i.e. lethargy, lack of appetite, fever) that can happen within the first 48 hours after a vaccine has been given. This “reaction” is the body recognizing that something foreign was given and that an immune response is required. In cats that are severely affected, we will give them supportive care to ensure they do not get dehydrated or are in pain.
Soft tissue sarcoma: One of the rarer vaccine risks, soft tissue sarcomas are soft tissue tumors that begin to grow at the vaccine site. Although historically associated with vaccines, current research indicates that these tumors can develop with any injection as it is not the content of the injection but rather the skin irritation/inflammation from the act of injecting that triggers them. The cats that develop these tumors are very prone to cancer. From this observation, it was discovered that these cats have mutations in the anti-cancer genes.
Vaccine failure: This risk is one that we cannot see but is still a concern as vaccine failure means that the body did not mount a sufficient immune response and is not protected from infection. To decrease the risk of vaccine failure kittens and cats with no previous vaccine history require boosters.
Do I need to vaccinate my cat every year?
This question has had the most debate in veterinary communities and the answer is not black and white.
In our practice it is not the vaccines that are the primary focus of your annual wellness visit – it is the visit, the physical examination, and opportunity for you to have a one-on-one conversation with our doctors. While we base on protocols on current AAFP guidelines, and do follow current thought that less vaccination is better for cat health, there may be reasons why more frequent vaccination protocols may be required including:
High risk behaviour
Cats that go into kennel facilities or to the groomers
Concerns about immune response
Rabies vaccinations are one disease that is given annually and, if your cat is at risk of exposure, we do not waiver on this because this is a very serious infectious disease that can impact human health as well. For those in doubt, Alberta is a rabies positive province and our carrier species are bats.